Unraveling the Enigmatic Life of George Gower
George Gower, born around 1540 and passing away in 1596, was a remarkable English portrait painter, acclaimed for his splendid work and his role as Serjeant Painter to Queen Elizabeth I, a prestigious position he assumed in 1581.
Early Life and Lineage
Though George Gower’s early life remains shrouded in mystery, one noteworthy fact is his lineage. He hailed as the grandson of Sir John Gower, hailing from Stittenham in North Yorkshire. This illustrious lineage could have potentially played a pivotal role in shaping his destiny as a distinguished painter.
Artistry Unveiled: The 1573 Masterpieces
George Gower’s artistic journey is brought to light through his earliest documented works, the two exquisite companion portraits from 1573. These portraits, featuring Sir Thomas Kytson and his wife Lady Kytson, currently reside in the Tate Gallery in London. Gower’s virtuosity in capturing the essence of his subjects was already evident in these masterpieces.
The Self-Portrait of 1579: A Glimpse into the Artist’s World
In 1579, George Gower created a remarkable self-portrait that provides a captivating glimpse into his world. This self-portrait prominently showcases his coat of arms and the tools of his trade. An allegorical element within the painting portrays a delicate balance, with the artist’s dividers outweighing the family coat of arms. This juxtaposition was quite audacious, especially considering the prevailing perception of painters in England as mere artisans during that era.
The Plimpton “Sieve” Portrait: A Symbolic Ode to Queen Elizabeth
One of Gower’s most renowned works is the Plimpton “Sieve” Portrait of Queen Elizabeth, completed in 1579 and now housed in the Folger Shakespeare Library. The sieve that Queen Elizabeth holds in this portrait carries a profound symbolism. It draws inspiration from the story of the Roman vestal virgin, Tuccia, who proved her chastity by carrying water in a sieve. This symbolism reflects Queen Elizabeth’s status as a virgin queen. Furthermore, the globe positioned over her right shoulder symbolizes her role as the leader of a burgeoning global empire. Gower’s ability to infuse symbolism and depth into his portraits was truly remarkable.
The Pinnacle of His Career: Serjeant Painter to Queen Elizabeth
The pinnacle of George Gower’s career came in 1581 when he was appointed as Serjeant Painter to Queen Elizabeth. This prestigious appointment granted him the privilege to paint portraits of England’s aristocracy. However, his responsibilities extended beyond the canvas. He was also entrusted with adorning royal residences, coaches, and furniture with his artistic prowess. Among his notable works were a fountain, unfortunately now lost to time, and the astronomical clock, both of which graced Hampton Court Palace. Furthermore, Gower held the crucial responsibility of inspecting portraits of the Queen created by other artists before their official release, ensuring they portrayed Her Majesty in the most dignified light.
The Armada Portrait: A Legendary Attribution
One of the most iconic portrayals of Queen Elizabeth, the Armada Portrait, was once attributed to George Gower. This masterpiece, celebrating the victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588, is currently housed at Woburn Abbey. Another truncated version of this portrait can be found in the National Portrait Gallery in the United Kingdom. However, it is now widely believed that all three extant versions are the works of different, albeit unknown, English artists, leaving George Gower’s direct involvement in their creation a subject of debate.
In conclusion, George Gower’s legacy as an English portrait painter of exceptional talent and influence remains intact. His ability to capture the essence of his subjects, infuse profound symbolism, and hold prestigious positions in the royal court of Queen Elizabeth I are testament to his unparalleled contribution to the world of art during the Elizabethan era. Though questions linger about certain attributions, Gower’s indelible mark on the art world is unquestionable, making him a figure worth celebrating in the annals of art history.